Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Psalm 51:4 (ESV)
Continuing in our series on the elements of biblical worship, we come now to the confession of sin and assurance of pardon. We have been called to worship and have responded by coming into his presence, calling upon him and praising him. A necessary response now as we come to worship God is to confess our sins. We are coming before a holy God, a consuming fire, and confession of our sin should be our reaction as we come to worship him and as we see his glory (Isa. 6:5, Ezek. 1:28, Luke 5:8). We should fall on our faces; we ought to be undone. To worship God with any integrity and honesty means a right recognition of our sin and our need for forgiveness and redemption. We humbly acknowledge our position before God, we rightly recognize that God’s standard for us is to be holy as he is holy (1 Pet. 1:16), and we confess that we have fallen short (Rom. 3:23). It is also right and proper to confess our sins before we dare to pray for our own needs.
The Bible presents a pattern of prayer that is often repeated throughout Scripture, consisting of recognition of God and praise to him for his attributes, confession, supplication (praying for our own needs), intercession (praying for the needs of others), thanksgiving and doxology. This can be a pattern of the individual prayers in the service, but it is also the general pattern of the prayers as we progress through the worship service. In the Invocation, we have called upon the name of the Lord, recognized the God to whom we pray and give our worship and praised the Triune God. Our next prayer is one of confession of our sins. Often this is a separate prayer, and sometimes it is included in the pastoral prayer.
Confession of sin is both an individual (Ps. 51) and a corporate matter (Dan. 9, Neh. 9). Like the rest of the service, it is modeled on Scripture, using the words, language and metaphors of Scripture to biblically confess our sin before our holy God. We must not only confess what we have done and the things we have failed to do (sins of commission and omission), but our very nature to sin, our sinful hearts and condition. Left to ourselves, we are prone to wander, to idolatry, pride, selfishness and unbelief. In our flesh dwells nothing good (Rom. 7:18), and our hearts are desperately sick & deceitful (Jer. 17:9). Not only have we sinned and also possess a sinful nature, but we have offended God. We must not neglect this point. Our sins are an offense against a holy God. We deserve his wrath and displeasure; we deserve to be consumed. And we must not only confess our sins but mourn over them, lament that we have sinned against our gracious Heavenly Father, mourn the fact that our sins separate us from him. We must have Godly sorrow and repentance, a turning away from our sin, a desire not only for forgiveness and cleansing but also to put aside that sin as we follow him. In recognizing both our sins and our very nature to sin, we pray for mercy and forgiveness, with thankfulness for his mercies.
The confession of sin can be done in several ways. There is often a time of personal confession, and also a prayer prayed on behalf of the congregation. Sometimes a corporate confession is read aloud by the congregation, which may be followed by prayer. It can be beneficial to memorize classic confessions that are rich in the language of Scripture, and some congregations attempt to do so by using the same corporate confession for a length of time. Sometimes it is read responsively and other times the whole prayer is read in unison.
Following our confession of sin is God’s response. God responds to us, through his Word, with the assurance of his pardon through Jesus Christ; in other words, with the gospel. God assures us of forgiveness and redemption in Christ, and this can be proclaimed and received with boldness and great joy. Indeed, often the assurance of pardon is followed by a hymn of praise and assurance as our response to his grace and mercy in forgiving our sins through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It should be remembered that God does not merely pass over or forget or overlook our sins; rather, Christ bore our sins on the tree as our substitute (1 Pet. 2:24). Our sins received the punishment they justly deserved, as he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Confession of our sin is a biblical pattern, repeated over and over again in the prayers of God’s people both individually and in corporate worship. And this pattern – confession, lamentation, pleading for mercy, assurance of pardon, and a hymn of thanksgiving and praise – is also a biblical pattern repeated throughout the Psalms. What naturally follows the confession of our sin and pleading for his mercies is supplication and intercession, which follows next in our pattern of biblical prayer as we progress through the service.
As we joyfully come into his presence, at his invitation, to worship him, to praise him, to recite together what we believe about this great God whom we worship, and as we get a glimpse of his glory, we should be moved to confession and repentance. As we enjoy and delight in this feast he has given to us, let us remember who we really are apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, and let us remember with gratitude that the only way we can come to this feast is through the blood of the Lamb who was slain to redeem a people for God. And let us rejoice that we have been forgiven, and not only forgiven but freed from our slavery to sin and made alive unto righteousness as we live our new lives in Christ.